Our 2012 Sustainable Food Summit celebrates the bounty of the Northwest foodshed – from wild salmon and shellfish to pastured beef and heritage grains, grapes, hops, hazelnuts and berries.

Often we’re asked “what is a foodshed exactly” and “what does it have to do with sustainability,” so we thought this would be a perfect time to discuss what a foodshed is.

A foodshed describes the geographic expanse of where a food is produced to where it is consumed – from the farm where it is raised, the roads it travels to reach its market, and finally to the consumer’s table.

Author Walter Hedden was the first to use the term foodshed in 1929; in his book, How Great Cities are Fed, he described how economics and new technologies, such as refrigerated railroad cars, changed the landscape of how we fed ourselves. In the 20th century we went from eating foods that were produced locally to consuming foods from around the world – our foodshed went global.

In the 21st century, with the advent and growth of the sustainable food movement, our foodsheds are once again developing closer to home. Farmers markets, for example, are popping up all over – in 2011,  the USDA counted 7,173 farmers markets, a 17 percent increase from just the year before; people are starting to grow their own food, and eating seasonally is a pleasure more of us enjoy. We’re learning about the various aspects of food production – from how the land is used and which animals or crops are grown on it, to how those farming methods impact the surrounding land, air and water sources.

A local or regional foodshed is often defined as food produced within a 150-mile radius of where it will be distributed and also takes into account the carbon footprint of transporting that food from farm to market. Another aspect that helps define a foodshed is “terroir” – that term that we’ve always associated with French wine producers. This concept of “taste of place” has expanded to include the flavor nuances of food grown or raised in a specific locale in the world. In the United States, our Northwest, Southwest, New England, Great Lakes and the Gulf regions each give us distinct flavor profiles – Gulf shrimp, Pacific Salmon, Vermont maple  syrup – each unique to its area.

Those distinct flavors are what chefs rely on when they create menus that celebrate the foods of their region. Whether they’re
cooking for fine dining establishments or a casual bistro, chefs are procuring more local, sustainable food. The National Restaurant Association (NRA), reports that about 90% of fine-dining establishments in the U.S. offer some type of local product.

According to Joy Dubost, Ph.D, R.D., director of Nutrition & Healthy Living for the National Restaurant Association, “Local sourcing of everything – from meat and fish, to produce, to alcoholic beverages – is a big trend for 2012. Local farms and food producers have become an important source of ingredients for chefs and restaurateurs wishing to support the members of their community and highlight seasonal ingredients on menus.” ??— (quote from NRA Website)

The most important facet of a foodshed is human intervention. It is up to us to decide how we eat, what we eat and where we purchase our food. To keep the momentum going, we need to continually educate ourselves, share that information with others and to vote with our dollars.

So let’s raise a glass of a locally-produced wine and toast the farmers, fishermen and ranchers who bring us sustainable and local options to our markets – and to the chefs who support them. And here’s to you for caring how and where your food is produced.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Northwest foodshed and the parallels to your own, local foodshed – join us in Seattle this fall for our 2012 Sustainable Food Summit.